Detroit’s Comeback Fever is Contagious

GM Headquarters, Detroit. Photo by Richard Varr

By Richard Varr  

It’s Saturday morning and Eastern Market is packed with locals and sightseers. I’ve joined tour guide Linda Yellin’s “Feet on the Street Tours” which winds in and around kiosks under open-air sheds packed with fresh produce, spice racks, meats and gooey cheeses. Overhead signs sport such headers as “Grown in Detroit” and “Detroit Food Academy.” “We’re seeing more people from outside the city proper that are interested in coming back, and connecting with the city in ways their parents didn’t,” says Yellin.

Bustling Eastern Market. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside, tasting samples clutter the table tops – crunchy tortilla chips, roasted peanuts and sweet potato pie. And they’re all Detroit made. “Being at this booth, I see people from all over the country and they tell me how great it is to see Detroit on this jar,” exults Jack Corley, a former automotive parts supplier for 25 years who’s now selling locally-owned McClure’s Pickles. “They say isn’t it great that’s happening in the city.”  Outside, street art murals awash in brilliant hues emblazon Market warehouses, one with a caption affirming city pride. “We have been considered many things: a city in decay, a city in distress and without hope,” it reads. “However, we have never given up and we never say die. We are born fighters, we rise from the ashes.”

This theme abuzz at Eastern Market reflects Detroit’s spirited comeback in recent years – a dramatic turnaround from the downtrodden years of auto industry decline, municipal bankruptcy in 2013 and people leaving decaying neighborhoods for the suburbs. “I’ve seen the hard times and I see us coming back,” says vendor Allen Love who pitches his peach and blueberry cobbler pies made from family recipes. “We have regular customers that come back every week,” he says. “We’re closer together and we want to see the city grow.”

Downtown Detroit. Photo by Richard Varr

When visiting, I sensed a rebirth of sorts summed up in rebuilding, new businesses in bustling city core neighborhoods, and what seems to be a burst of renewed energy and pride. “Businesses pop up overnight; it’s crazy,” says tour guide Kim Rusinow with Destination Detroit Group Tours and Services who’s leading us in and around the city center. “There’s no denying we’ve been slammed pretty hard. We have some challenges to overcome, but we are an amazing comeback city.”

Downtown Detroit. Photo by Richard Varr

Alongside the multi-towered General Motors Renaissance Center, our first stop is the Detroit RiverWalk, a 3.5 mile-long walkway with benches, public art, parks and a lighthouse. Shops, cafes and residential units now occupy what was once an industrial base with factories and warehouses.

Comerica Park. Photo by Richard Varr

Skirting the edges of downtown’s 19th and 20th century granite and limestone skyscrapers, and shining steel and glass towers, the Stadium District has marked downtown’s resurgence with new 21st century sports stadiums. Statues of clawing tigers hover over the entrances to Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team, just across the street from football’s Detroit Lions’ Ford Field. The area’s yet greatest expansion comes with the $1 billion-plus, 50-block redevelopment project known as The District Detroit with its new Little Caesars Arena, home to the Detroit Red Wings hockey team and Pistons basketball.

New businesses have found homes in rejuvenated old city buildings. Driving north on Woodward Avenue, we enter the Midtown District where the original facility of a former jeep factory now houses upscale condos. Detroit-based Shinola, the flagship store for the first watch company making watches out of Switzerland with guaranteed Swiss movement, opened a factory with six workers and now employs about 500, according to Rusinow. “They could have gone anywhere,” she says. “We’re so excited that for their manufacturing they chose Detroit because we hadn’t had any new manufacturing here in a very long time.”

Another example of repurposing is downtown’s recently opened Detroit Foundation Hotel, housed in a former Fire Department administration building and firehouse. The fire commissioner’s former office is now a suite. Doorways that once opened for fire engines now lead to a swanky restaurant and bar hopping with a lively crowd during my Saturday night visit.

Rosa Parks bus in the Henry Ford Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Historic cars in the Henry Ford Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Must-See Museums

The metro area’s institutions and museums seem to be better than ever. At the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, I toured adjacent Greenfield Village with its reconstructed and refurbished historic homes with a ride in an original 1914 Model T Ford. Driver Don Ludwig tells me there are still 200,000 Model T’s still running in the U.S. “People come here to step back in time. Isn’t that what you’re doing right now?” he asks? Greenfield Village has historic buildings including Henry Ford’s birth home and the Wright Brothers home and cycle shop where they worked on their fledgling aircraft.

Model T Fords at Greenfield Village. Photo by Richard Varr

Wright Brothers Bicycle Shop at Greenfield Village. Photo by Richard Varr

The facades of the entrance to the Henry Ford Museum building was modeled after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The collection includes prototype and original early 20th century cars, planes, locomotives and more, including the refurbished bus in which civil rights pioneer Rosa Park refused to give up her seat. There are many old Model T’s and former presidents’ cars, including the very ones in which Kennedy was shot (original chassis only) and in which Reagan was driven to the hospital after his gunshot wound.

President Reagan’s limousine. Photo by Richard Varr

Industrial Murals by Diego Rivera. Photo by Richard Varr

Other must-see museums include the Detroit Institute of Arts with is wall-sized Diego Rivera industrial murals in a central atrium. The Motown Museum in two adjacent neighborhood homes offers a close-up look at the small studio where Motown greats like the Supremes and Four Tops got their start.

Motown Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

While much has been done in Detroit, challenges remain. In the 1950s, the population was close to two million, down to about 700,000 now. More than 40 percent of the city’s 140 square miles is vacant land with 80,000 abandoned homes. “That’s the reality of a city that loses its tax base and its population,” says Rusinow. “What we do with it, how we go forward with purpose to bring quality of life back to our neighborhoods and our residents, to rebuild smart, to become a city that is desirable and affordable for everybody, is our goal.”




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